Coming of age

ROAD TEST

Last updated 00:00 01/01/2009
Outstanding in its field: the M3 looks like a 3-series coupe but uses on a fifth of its parts.

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BMW's M3 comes of age in its fourth-generation, with twice the cylinders, and almost twice the engine capacity, writes DAVE MOORE.

Twenty years ago, the four- cylinder original E30 BMW M3 swept all before it on the track, embarrassing much larger cars and establishing a reputation that saw enthusiasts adding M3 badges to the grille and boot lid of their own more modest 3-series models in homage. They fooled only themselves, of course

Since then, the official M3 badge – the M is for Motorsport – has been applied to two generations of six-cylinder BMWs, with the E36 and E46 models making good use of their proud badges as a marketing device. They were not derived from a racing car like the first model, although many did find their way onto the track at weekends.

The fourth-generation M3 was launched in Europe mid-year, and it's a sign of the intensity of competition, with both Audi and Benz slotting V8s into their own small executive sedans, that the all-new BMW packs a V8, too.

It's no ordinary V8, either. Despite having two-cylinders and 40kW more than the old car's twin-cam six, the alloy V8 is 16kg lighter than the preceding powerplant. That's not to say that the new M3's a particularly light car. At a hefty 1650kg, it isn't, but with the lighter engine and a carbon-fibre roof panel, as well as bespoke light alloy suspension parts, the extra weight is in all the right places: low and away from the car's extremities and close to its core.

Although the M3 looks like its 3-series coupe sibling, it shares just 20 per cent of its components, everything save for its windows, doors, lights and bootlid being totally original. The biggest difference is the bulging bonnet, which looks as if it has been shrink-wrapped around something lumpy and rather sinister.

Which of course it has: a high- revving 414 horsepower V8 with a great shovel load of torque, 400Nm of it at a fairly modest 3200rpm. That's enough to propel the M3 to 100km/h in 4.8 seconds.

While the horsepower numbers are solid enough, the low-revolution peak of just 3200rpm tells a truer story of the engine's talent.

While it will rev-out to 8000rpm plus without compunction, the mid- range is wonderfully elastic and being in the wrong gear does not have a disastrous effect on progress. In fact, the M3's flexibility makes it a much more pleasant car to drive slowly than those other rare cars that can match its performance, like the hotter Porsches and Ferraris.

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For the time-being a six-speed manual shift is the only transmission available, although a sequential, paddle-shift seven-speed is expected next year.

Often a manual high-performance car can be an unpleasant low-speed and commuting prospect, often with an over-heavy clutch and an engine with no bottom end output, but not the M3, which suffers neither, with adjustable power-steering assistance – there are normal and sport modes – so it's even a fairly easy car to manoeuvre around town.

However, it's the steering that provides the car's only real weak point. For a car that affords huge levels of grip and that possesses possibly the best handling and most communicative front-engined, rear- drive chassis in the business, the steering's feel is strangely numb and lacking in feedback. There's nothing wrong with its accuracy or weight, but I'd love to enjoy the car's magnificent underpinnings through my hands as well as through the seat of my pants.

The M3's chassis is not overwhelmed by its great raft of electronic gee-gaws. These include Dynamic Stability Control, Dynamic Brake Control, and Cornering Brake Control, which could collectively overwhelm a chassis if they are set to dominate proceedings rather than merely assist, as they are in the M3.

An M3 owner can set the car up to their personal preferences. Stability control has on and off settings as well as an M Dynamic mode, the choice being dictated by the driving conditions of the moment, or in the case of M Dynamic, whether you fancy some weekend track work. Electronic damper control is an option and allows you to choose between three levels of ride. Even in the hardest or sport setting, the M3 rides remarkably well, although city streets are more comfortably traversed with a softer set-up.

When a little M pad is pressed on the M3's steering wheel, M Drive is engaged. Through this the steering, suspension and throttle settings of the M3's can be dialled in via its iDrive control. You pick the responses you want from a menu that includes normal, sport and sport plus settings.

You could take hours setting the M3 up, to be honest, and that might be a nuisance for many, but once you feel the differences between the settings, as I did, you'll know it is time well spent. There are some who take weeks finalising the settings on their cellphones, so the M3 is probably not for them.

Once the plethora of settings are finished with and forgotten, the M3 is a remarkably simple car to drive. There are no bad habits, a forgiving ride and an engine/chassis relationship that engages with the driver so positively on the open road that the M3's mildly disappointing steering is soon forgotten.

Through my favourite driving routes, the M3 is a remarkably efficient eater of distances and straightener of curves. In tighter turns taken with some gusto, the clever electronics can only just be felt going about their business, and they never interfere.

A variable diff lock is fitted to the M3 which can send up to 100% of its engine's torque to one or other of the rear wheels if grip at road level is deemed to need it.

The tail does ease out if you push the M3 hard, but it can be made to return tidily with just a gentle readjustment of throttle or wheel.

Wind noise is totally absent and road roar not intrusive for such a sporting car. However, the engine's clamour is ever present, but its distinctive tenor voice is a delight, especially when gaining an octave or two under hard acceleration, which is of a serious, upholstery-crushing nature. Despite that vocal accompaniment and a stopwatch with digital proof, the M3 does not feel as quick as it is. Unlike the first M3 which you knew by its frantic engine and relatively raw nature that you were getting along a bit, the M3 is so refined and quiet at a 100km/h cruise that its intuitive cruise control set-up will be your licence's only salvation.

While big body-hugging front seats dominate the cabin and afford terrific comfort and unimpeachable location against the M3's remarkable side-forces, the rest of the cabin could well have come from a lesser 3-series coupe model. It's well upholstered, with black hide in the test car, and detailed in M3 form with some red and blue stitchwork and specially textured leather for the fascia.

For me, the screen for the M3's iDrive is a real problem. The extra binnacle ruins what in basic model 3-series form can be a very simple and elegant driving environment. You have to take the iDrive system with the M3, as through it, you make full use of the finer points of the M Drive set-up. It does provide a readout for the car's sat-nav system as well, but if I could do without its extra binnacle and provide a stick-on sat-nav set-up that could be transferred from car to car, I would.

Dash and steering apart, the M3 is a terrific achievement. It provides four or even five good-sized seating positions, a useful boot and beautiful build quality, not to mention performance levels that would embarrass half million dollar Italian supercars. It's also a pussy cat to drive day-to-day and while it's not as pure as the original, it's the best M3 since.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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